The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1889) wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”. Have you noticed that when you need a creative answer or solution for some problem, if you get outside and take a walk, that the answer comes to you?
Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple Computer and the genius who popularized the iPod, iPad, and iPhone was well known to take long walks when he needed to come up with ideas. Particularly when he was visited by other technology executives, Jobs often insisted they walk outside together to find a mutual solution for their problems.
But until recently this concept of taking a walk as a way of stimulating creativity was never scientifically studied. In the April 21, 2014 Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, two researchers from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education put this issue to a scientific study, and found out that indeed walking does work, generating an increase in creative output of about 60%.
They tested a total of 176 young adult college students in several different experiments, for example, walking indoors on a treadmill vs. walking outside. In one test, the subjects were told to come up with as many alternative uses for common items such as a tire or a button as they could in a specific amount of time. The researchers compared the number of alternative uses created while the students walked on a treadmill versus just sitting at a table in a room.
The result was impressive. Eighty-one percent of the students improved their creative output while walking compared with sitting. The study showed that the students were more talkative while walking, but they also had more thoughts, and a higher percentage of creative thoughts.
In another part of the experiment, they tested another type of thinking, called “convergent thinking”, which is more of a test of overall brainpower. They found that walking did not improve this measure of overall brainpower.
But walking did markedly improve the creative process, and they found that the positive effects of walking persisted after the participants returned to a sitting environment. They also found that it did not seem to matter if the individual walked outside, or walked on a treadmill—both situations improved creativity equally.
So when you need to come up with a creative solution for a problem at work or at home, see if you can get outside and take a walk (since most of us don’t have treadmills available). The researchers suggested walking at a normal pace, and it might be best to walk—if you can—in an area with not too many distractions.
You might experiment what works best for you. Perhaps for you, a brief period of running or cycling might work just as well, or even better to stimulate your creativity.
Companies can take advantage of this for brainstorming sessions. Have each member of the team take a 30-minute walk, then meet together and discuss their ideas. The group will probably find a better solution than if they all only sat together in a room the entire time.
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